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The Golden Knights Have The Edge No Matter The Score

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MAY 21: Chandler Stephenson #20 of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrates after scoring the game-winning overtime goal against the Dallas Stars in Game Two of the Western Conference Final of the 2023 Stanley Cup Playoffs at T-Mobile Arena on May 21, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

You'd be hard-pressed to identify much daylight between the Stars and the Golden Knights, other than the latter's 2-0 series lead. They've never been more than one goal apart, and in all shot and possession metrics it's more or less a dead heat. Neither is clearly the better team. But no matter how evenly matched they might be, someone's gotta win a game—hockey's like that—and Vegas has won both. So, in search of a more satisfying narrative than "sometimes the coin lands on heads twice in a row," one turns to pattern recognition. And this one's easy to spot. The Stars made the mistake of taking a lead.

The Knights have been comeback chevaliers in this postseason, putting up a 7-3 record when their opponent scores first and going an astonishing 8-3 in games where they trail. This isn't normal, obviously; having a lead tends to be a good thing, for the obvious reason that whoever has a lead at the end wins the game and the slightly less obvious reason that a trailing team tends to have to take bigger risks. But the Knights have not gotten away from their philosophies when they go down early, or at all; their defense remains solid and devoted to preventing opponents from running away with the game, and their offense remains ready to strike without shirking backchecking duties. “We trust our game,” said defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. “We feel like the process is going to work, whether it’s a win or not. We have a lot of faith in this room. Everybody’s on the same page.”

This Game 2 was not a pretty affair. Miro Heiskanen got the Stars on the board first (uh-oh!) and Mark Stone equalized at the halfway point of the first period. Dallas would take another lead by capitalizing on a power play in the second, and that's when the game settled into something of a slog, neither team giving an inch in transition and a whole lot of dump and chase. But Vegas stuck to their guns—their "faith," as Stephenson mentioned above, consists mainly of counting on their opponents to make a mistake before they do. And in the closing minutes, Jack Eichel made something out a lackadaisical Ryan Suter clearing attempt, with a no-look centering pass to set up Jonathan Marchessault for the game-tying goal. A beauty! Makes one regret we've had to wait this many years for Playoff Eichel.

Barely a minute into overtime, the Stars cracked. A poorly timed and executed line change gave the Knights numbers, and when Jake Oettinger couldn't smother a Shea Theodore shot, no one was around to stop Chandler Stephenson from cleaning up the rebound.

And here we run into another trend, possibly more telling and powerful than the Knights' penchant for comebacks: The Stars really stink in overtime. They're 0-4 in this postseason in the extra frame, including 0-2 in this series, with both losses coming under two minutes into the OT. They were a woeful 4-11 at 3-on-3 in the regular season. I'm not sure exactly what you make of this, because this is a really good team. A lack of grace under pressure, perhaps, or maybe just really bad luck—the coin flip again. Either way it's glaring.

So now the series moves to Dallas, where the Stars have a deep hole but also some reasons for hope. They controlled most of Game 2 and could easily have stolen Game 1; playoff games and thus entire seasons hinge on individual chances either taken advantage of or not, especially (by definition) in overtime games. I wouldn't dare declare Vegas the obviously better team right now. But they have a 2-0 lead, and that's enough breathing room that it may not matter how it was come about.

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